Battling for Galactic Supremacy

UCR's Collegiate Star League team reaches the quarter-finals of prestigious "E-sports" tournament

RIVERSIDE, Calif. ( — In a friendly rivalry that dates back more than 40 years, the University of California, Riverside and its sister school, UC Irvine, have gone head-to-head in a vast number of academic and athletic competitions. But chances are that few of those contests were quite as “far-out” as this one.

For on this mid-April night, somewhere deep within the “Koprulu Sector” of a far-off galaxy, an insect-like race of creatures called the Zerg, under the control of UCR junior Ismail Khan, battled for control of the Antiga Shipyard against the Terran forces of UC Irvine’s Joshua Coyle.

But no actual blood was shed, as the battle was part of a best-of-five contest between the two schools in the second round of the Collegiate Star League (CSL) playoffs, pitting the pair on a virtual battlefield powered by the popular real-time strategy game “Starcraft II: Wings of Liberty.”

In its fifth year of existence, the CSL is one of several online gaming leagues competing in “E-sports,” described as “video games as a competitive spectator sport.” Made up of over 240 colleges and universities across the United States and Canada, the league features a regular season followed by a 128-team single-elimination tournament. Players generally play from their own homes, though the league has also hosted regional head-to-head competitions. UCR has played in the league since its beginning, reaching the final eight in the playoffs in 2011.

Player gaming in front of a big screen

Jordan Lee of UCR's CSL team plays a match in front of a big screen at the UCI LAN Tournament in January.

“It’s kind of like a modern chess league,” explained senior public policy major and UCR team coordinator Jordan Lee, who has been a member of the UCR team since its creation. “It’s a little more accessible for college-age gamers, a little more appealing to the eyes of this generation.”

Exactly like chess – if both players could move their pieces at will, the queen could burrow under the board to hide, the bishop could warp across the board and all the pawns could attack a target at once.

In StarCraft II players take control of one of three races; the insect-like Zerg, the mystical Protoss, or the Terrans, humans long removed from Earth, and wage virtual war across a variety of customized virtual battlefields. Each race has its own strengths and weaknesses that make the game more challenging. The action all takes place in real-time as players collect resources, build facilities and offensive and defensive units in an attempt to best their opponents. The game puts a premium on planning, strategy and quick reaction times.

Matches in the CSL generally take around 15 minutes and are recorded so they can be streamed online, complete with play-by-play announcers and color commentators calling the action. But the preparation can take hours, as players practice and refine their strategies during the week. Lee said he spends about 15 hours a week with the league, carefully balancing his time between a full course load and volunteer work with campus church groups.

The UCR CSL team

The members of the UCR CSL team at the UC Irvine LAN Tournament in January. From left, Andy Vo, Kevin Hoang, Vichy Truong, Loi Doan, Kelvin An, Sean Chen and Jordan Lee.

The UC Riverside team has about 20 regular members, with another 10 or so that support the group and attend team dinners and other events. Players must be students at the school to participate in the weekly best-of-five matches sponsored by the CSL. As coordinator, Lee works to ensure that every member gets a chance to play at least one match against another school during the regular season.

“If someone makes the effort to be in the group, then, if they want to, they will get to play against another school,” Lee said. “We have been pretty successful doing that.”

Lee said the game is so exacting that high-level players not only specialize in playing a particular race, but can also become experts in playing against specific races.

“It is very difficult to play multiple races at the highest level,” Lee said, adding that he has been playing as the Protoss for seven years, dating back to his time on the Team LighT professional team. “We also have specialists who are good at certain match-ups, not just playing as Protoss, but playing as Protoss against Terran or Zerg. If the team we are playing has a lot of good Zerg players, we would think twice before playing someone who has struggled against Zerg players.”

E-sports, described as “video games as a competitive spectator sport,” is becoming increasingly popular worldwide, particularly in South Korea where there are as many as 12 professional Starcraft teams. In 2005, over 120,000 fans gathered in a stadium to watch the Starcraft Proleague Championship. In March 2012, Princeton University held the Electronic Sports Symposium, with a panel of industry leaders sharing their experiences and insights about the world of professional gaming.

And while some critics might argue that game playing is a waste of time, Victor Zordan, associate professor of computer science and engineering at UC Riverside disagrees.

“There is a tremendous amount of strategy and problem solving that goes into video game playing, especially at a competitive level,” Zordan said. “These abilities do transfer beyond simply playing the game.”

A study of laparoscopic surgeons by Iowa State University psychologist Douglas Gentile and Dr. James Rosser of Beth Israel Medical Center in New York supports that view. The survey, published in the Archives of Surgery in 2007, showed that surgeons who played games regularly were 27% faster at advanced surgical procedures and made 37% fewer errors than non-players. A series of studies presented at the 2008 American Psychological Association convention concluded that certain types of video games can have benefits on the players, including improved planning and problem solving skills.

Success in Starcraft II is often measured in clicks per minute, or CPM. Top professional players average between 250 to 300 clicks per minute. Lee calls himself “slow” with an average of 180 to 200 CPM. “A few of our players can get to over 200, but most are between 150 and 200,” he said. “But it is like playing the piano. It takes a bit of practice to get your finger muscles used to clicking that fast.”

The road through the playoffs doesn’t get any easier for the UCR team, as they are scheduled to take on the University of British Columbia in the quarter-finals on April 28. UBC is the defending champion and their lineup features a pair of professional players.

“UBC’s top players are among the most recognized players in the gaming community,” Lee said. “But if we win, the format in the next round expands to a best-of-seven series. We have great depth, so I like our chances.”

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